Review: Million Dollar Baby

Another act of faith from Clint Eastwood, Million Dollar Baby may be the best American film of 2004.

Million Dollar Baby
Photo: Warner Bros.

Another act of faith from Clint Eastwood, Million Dollar Baby may be the best American film of 2004. The story of a woman who becomes a boxing sensation after winning the affections of her would-be manager, the film casts Hilary Swank as the David to Eastwood’s Goliath. Told with the kind of lyrical stoicism and rough-hewn sentimentality that suggests a gravel-voiced grandfather recounting war stories while chugging jiggers of scotch, Million Dollar Baby envisions an elegiac boulevard of broken dreams where characters drown in the spiritual anemia of noir shadows. It’s across a very wide gender and cultural divide that Maggie Fitzgerald (Swank, proving for the first time since Boys Don’t Cry why she won an Oscar—and why she may win another), a 31-year-old waitress who “grew up knowing she was trash,” appeals to the crotchety Frankie Dunn (Eastwood), a man whose failure as a father is hauntingly mirrored in his failures as a coach. Unlike any boxing film before it, Million Dollar Baby gets down to the existential nitty-gritty of the sport; of course, it should come as no surprise that Eastwood, whose films are directed and cut like great jazz pieces, reveres movement the way he does, evoking every physical step Swank makes inside the ring as the dance of a wandering soul. That’s not to say that the film is full of itself, because while Million Dollar Baby carries a hefty spiritual load, it’s also very funny (“You have 20 seconds before this turns into a geyser and spills all over the front row” is one of Frank’s more amusing alpha-male instructions to his prized filly). Outside the ring, Swank and Eastwood engage in an emotional two-step: Maggie successfully appeals to Frank’s compassion, and soon they’re treating each other like father and daughter. Eastwood, who similarly observes the wear and tear his characters take to the flesh in the same way they suffer inside, evokes life as a journey of shared consciousness. As Eddie “Scrap-Iron” Dupris, Morgan Freeman is the story’s Greek chorus, observing the many converging circles of abuse around him, but he is also Frank’s albatross: Eddie, who lost an eye during a match Frank should never have let him fight, now lives and works inside Frank’s gym, and it’s understood (make no mistake: Eastwood makes art out of subtlety) that his presence in his ex-trainer’s world represents a form of penance. By film’s end, Frank, referred to as a “fucking pagan” by a local priest, finds his holy spirit and negotiates God under his own terms, performing a final act of contrition so powerful and serene you can almost see his soul being set at ease during the film’s melancholic final shot. Truly, this is a man that has successfully rolled with life’s punches.

 Cast: Clint Eastwood, Hilary Swank, Morgan Freeman, Jay Baruchel, Mike Colter, Lucia Rijker, Brian F. O'Byrne, Anthony Mackie, Margo Martindale, Riki Lindhome, Michael Peña, Benito Martinez, Bruce MacVittie  Director: Clint Eastwood  Screenwriter: Paul Haggis  Distributor: Warner Bros.  Running Time: 132 min  Rating: PG-13  Year: 2004  Buy: Video, Soundtrack, Book

Ed Gonzalez

Ed Gonzalez is the co-founder of Slant Magazine. His writing has also appeared in The Village Voice and The Los Angeles Times. He’s a member of the New York Film Critics Circle, the Critics Choice Association, and the Latino Entertainment Journalists Association.

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